As a massive winter storm barrels across the east coast, killing at least 12 in the South and leaving hundreds of thousands without power, cities are struggling with salt shortages after a winter of heavy snowfall and ice.
In Ringwood and Wanaque, New Jersey, there have been 23 snow events so far this winter, compared to 13 last year. This uptick has caused the boroughs’ supplies of road salt to dwindle fast. Stores in Baltimore have reported a rock salt shortage as residents buy up bags of the salt for their driveways and sidewalks. Wichita, Kansas has used up about 70 percent of its salt supply, and in Pennsylvania, “bad weather has created an unprecedented demand for road salt,” according to state officials.
But some states have avoided shortages altogether, partly because they’ve turned to other substances to de-ice their roads. About 175 municipalities in the Midwest are using “Beet Heet,” a product made from sugar beets and molasses. A town in British Columbia is doing the same thing with Beet 55, a mix of sugar beet juice and saline, in an attempt to cut back on the rock salt and sand they use. And Wisconsin is using cheese brine, a salty liquid the state has in abundance, to prevent ice buildup on roads. Cheese brine doesn’t freeze until it reaches 21 degrees F below zero, and when used along with rock salt, it also prevents the salt from bouncing off roads. Using cheese brine has saved Polk County, WI $40,000 in rock salt costs, and has also saved dairy farms thousands in brine disposal costs.
But using these salt alternatives isn’t just economically beneficial for a city — it also can help ease the impact rock salt has on the environment. Rock salt migrates off roads and can build up in soil and settle onto tree leaves and branches, killing the trees by drying them out or causing root damage. High concentrations of rock salt can also make it harder for certain frogs and salamanders to survive, their eggs and embryos dying off when exposed to the salt.
And runoff from roads can increase salt concentrations in streams and rivers. In Minneapolis-St. Paul, five streams have been labeled as “impaired” due to high salt concentrations.
Darrel Finnigan, public works superintendent in another B.C. city that’s begun using the beet juice-based substance to prevent ice buildup, told the Globe and Mail that river health was one of the reasons for the city’s move to decrease their rock salt usage.
“Our community is surrounded by rivers. Every storm drain runs to a river, so the less salt we use, the better,” he said.